Facing the continued spread of the novel coronavirus across the US, Ford announced Tuesday that it will not resume production, as initially planned, of trucks and SUVs next week. But while the automaker’s workers aren’t stamping metal, they’re not entirely idle either. They’ve started several projects aimed at helping fight the pandemic. That means collaborating with 3M on a new respirator design using stockpiled parts like the fans made to cool the fannies of F-150 drivers. The automaker is working with GE Healthcare to increase production of ventilators, a crucial tool for Covid-19 patients struggling to breathe.
In addition, Ford designers are producing new sorts of transparent face shields to protect medical workers and first responders. It hopes to soon be making 100,000 a week at a subsidiary’s plant.
Other automakers are working on similar efforts. Tesla bought more than 1,200 ventilators in China and donated them to the public health effort in California; CEO Elon Musk said his company is looking at how to build more. General Motors is helping Ventec Life Systems scale up its ventilator production and considering other ways to help, its CEO Mary Barra says.
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“We’re just going as fast as we can,” executive chairman Bill Ford said on CNBC Tuesday. “This is what very much our company does when we’re needed.” Indeed, Ford was a key part of the “arsenal of democracy” that helped power the US to victory in World War II. At its peak, the company was building a B-24 bomber every 63 minutes at its Willow Run plant west of Detroit.
Efforts to combat Covid-19 fall far short of the contributions that Ford and other companies made to winning that war. In part, that’s because there’s no easy way to help: Just a few firms are set up for the complexity and precision of making the ventilators that patients need. But you could have said the same thing 80 years ago.
To battle Germany and Japan, American manufacturers built new factories, trained massive workforces, and stopped what they were used to doing for what needed to be done. Frigidaire made machine guns. Lingerie factories churned out camouflage netting. Road-building companies made fighting ships. Parts designed for vacuum cleaners went into gas masks.
Yes, the coronavirus calls for a different bill of munitions, on a different timescale. Health experts don’t need the same range of tools that the 1940s military demanded—ventilators and protective equipment top the list—but they need them desperately, immediately. World War II played out over years; the coronavirus has transformed life for billions in the past few weeks. American factories aren’t shut because the economy is already crippled, but because their workers must keep their distance. In 1941, most of the materials America needed to build its army lay within its borders. Today’s supply chains wrap around the globe.
Still, the way American industry mobilized for war is remarkable for its scale, speed, and success—and offers lessons for anyone trying to help today.
The first of these, sadly, isn’t much good now: Prepare well in advance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt got serious about stocking his armory (and drafting soldiers) more than a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, soon after France fell to Germany. By April 1941, the government had ordered $1.5 billion (that’s $26.4 billion today) worth of plane engines, tanks, machine guns, and other tools just from the auto industry—the country’s great manufacturing powerhouse. By the time Congress declared war eight months later, the auto industry was well into the process of realigning supply chains and preparing to arm America. “We weren’t ready to fight in December of 1941,” says Rob Citino, the senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, citing early losses like the fall of the Philippines. “But we were more prepared to fight than we would’ve been had Roosevelt not gotten us started early.”
This year, by contrast, US officials dithered for weeks while the virus approached, and it’s now too late to prepare. But in the past week, more companies have announced plans to join the fight. Beyond the automakers, Givenchy, Dior, and liquor giant Pernod Ricard, which use alcohol in their products, are making hand sanitizer in France and the US. Honeywell is hiring 500 workers to run an extra production line to crank out N95 masks. Prestige Ameritech has quadrupled its typical production to 1 million masks a day. Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers to meet demand for shipments to people stuck at home, and is now accepting only essential items at its warehouses.
These efforts are worthy but scattershot. In his CNBC interview, Bill Ford said his company had no guidance from the White House, that it was figuring out how to help on its own. And so comes the second lesson from the war: Coordination is key, and should come from the federal government. Yet President Trump has left it to governors to acquire the supplies they need, saying of the federal government, “we’re not a shipping clerk.” That’s left states competing with each other—and with the feds—for supplies, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has said, driving up prices for everyone.
That perverse result is reminiscent of the early days of the Civil War, says Mark Wilson, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, when states sent their own delegations to the same manufacturers for blankets, rifles, and so on. “That was a very inefficient and chaotic and, I think, wrong-headed process,” he adds. Unfortunately for the Nazis, by the 20th century the US opted for organizing things from the top.
Coordination helped at lower levels too. While automakers today are each trumpeting their own, possibly overlapping initiatives, in 1941 they and their suppliers formed the Automotive Council for War Production, which put 192 manufacturing plants to work for the war effort. They created a shared list of every machine tool not being used to capacity, to squeeze out more productive power. They pledged to make their facilities available to other companies that might need them. In the five weeks after Pearl Harbor, the federal government let out contracts worth $3.5 billion ($61.6 billion today) to the automakers. Manufacturers were motivated by national unity and profits; a federal ban on the production of civilian cars all but ensured the auto industry would turn to munitions.
The US government also pressured companies into sharing intellectual property, so production wasn’t limited by the capacity of a single company. When the military needed more B-17 bombers than Boeing could produce, it hired Lockheed to pick up the slack, requiring it to pay Boeing a modest licensing fee, according to Wilson. And during the war years, FDR’s government eased off antitrust enforcement.
The same sort of moves now could help increase production of ventilators and other tools, but Trump has mostly abstained from directing private sector efforts, and resisted using the 1950 Defense Production Act. “We're a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Trump said Sunday. “Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well." The law wouldn’t nationalize anything, though. It would allow the government to make companies accept government contracts, and to protect companies from antitrust actions if they work together.
During World War II, the US government paid to build plants, owned them, hired companies to use them, and bought all the output. That allowed companies to expand their footprint without worrying about a return on their investment, and ensured that the government got what it needed, when it needed it. That’s how road-building company Brown & Root ended up with a $90 million Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, and how Ford got the mile-long assembly line at the Willow Run bomber plant.
This effort “was really at the core of US mobilization,” says Wilson. Instead of waiting for corporate executives to decide if a plant made financial sense, “the government just threw money at the problem and said, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll absorb the risk.’”
The economics aren’t as clear for companies enlisting in the fight against the coronavirus. “We haven't talked to anybody about any kind of reimbursement or anything like that,” Bill Ford told CNBC. But it’s hard to imagine any company launching a large-scale effort to boost production of ventilators or other products without considering how it will recover the costs. During the war, the feds made helping out rather tempting, promising its business partners profit margins of 8 percent, says Citino of the World War II museum. It wasn’t just patriotism that won the war, an old joke went—it was patriotism and that 8 percent.
The key to winning a global fight—in the 1940s and maybe today too—was finding the right incentives to push every needed effort in the right direction, Citino adds: “You get to do good and do well at the same time.”